Last night, I was having trouble sleeping because my head was so stuffy and my room was chilly, so I wrapped myself in a warm blanket and curled up on the chair in the upstairs hallway. All the lights were out and I watched the gas heater flickering in front of me. Inside the blacked windows on the front of the heater, there is a cracked and crusted latticework, and behind that burns a tall, orange flame. Last night I turned it up so I could hear the gas softly roaring and ticking, and all around the foot of the lone tongue of fire, dozens of tiny blue flames sprung up. I stared at the impressive shadows the fire cast through the latticework into the darkness, and pitifully wished that I could still breathe through my nose.
When I was a little girl, I used to turn up those flames just to watch them burn. I would crouch on the floor, pressed against the little factory-printed placard which read, “Keep children, clothing, and furniture away,” and I would imagine that the inside of that heater was a small cathedral. The shapes of the lattice pointed heavenward like church windows, and the tall flame was a preacher, praising his God. All the little blue fires were his congregation, or sometimes even the choir, if I turned it up very high so that I could hear them singing hallelujah in a quick, clicking rhythm as gas was released. I thought it was the most beautiful little world in there. Sometimes, even at the wise old age of seven or eight, I had to restrain myself from prying the hot glass off the front to see if I could get inside, enter the cathedral, burn like a singing flame beneath the majesty of those arches.
Last night as I sat in the darkness and watched the tall flame rise and rise and rise I remembered all that. I wondered why I didn’t feel awe like that anymore, especially at Christmastime, the time of the lighted fir tree and the swelling choral arrangement. A couple months ago I told my students very certainly that if they ever found themselves in a place in life in which there were not awed, then they were in the wrong place. I burrowed deeper into my blanket and doubted my own words.
I do believe that awe is the response for which the Advent season begs. This is why we set children in the midst of it, hand them presents, watch their faces glow, and sentimentally compare them to the baby in the manger. Awe comes naturally when you are small and everything looks big, and it is for this reason that Christ bids us to “come as little children.”
But there are other sorts of Christmases, lest we forget. New life always arrives with the silent promise of eventual death. Two years ago I wrote this entry about the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, and last night I could not stop thinking about T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Journey of the Magi.” “A cold coming we had of it,” the kingly speaker says “…A hard time we had of it…Sleeping in snatches, / With the voices singing in our ears, saying / That this was all folly.” The wise men reach the appointed place (there is no mention of a bright, guiding star, no room for awe,) and the wine is all drunk up, three trees grow close together in a meadow, and a white horse mysteriously gallops away as they approach. The speaker pronounces the wonder they have come to see to be “satisfactory.” Then, hesitantly, he continues,
I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
I actually got up out of my warm chair last night and turned on the light so I could re-read that poem. And even now, a day later, I am still struggling to explain the solace it offered me. It seemed to say that the way birth pains mirror death pains is not coincidental, that sleeping only in snatches is better than not waking at all, that at times it is well to be unsatisfied with the “old dispensation.”
So, if the remembrance of Christ’s birth does not provide me with the feeling of awe which I’ve been demanding, at least it brings me a measure of certainty. Certainty that God made his promises with the purpose of fulfilling them, that that there is order in his plan, that Someone much greater than myself is at work far beyond my sight. (Someone greater than myself? Beyond my sight? Perhaps this is awe after all. Awe of a small kind.)
After I read the poem I turned off the light again and returned to my chair by the flickering heater. I pulled the blanket tight, tight around me and I prayed. I prayed for those magi, and their hard, cold journey towards the Savior. (Sometimes I figure that if eternity is eternity and God really is outside of time, I can pray for anyone anywhere in history, and my Lord will hear.) I prayed that my own heart would soften and rest. I prayed for my students to whom, I think, awe still comes naturally. I prayed and I watched the tall flame glimmer in the cathedral, and listened to the tick of the gas valve in the dark, warm room.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.” Isaiah 9:2